A Debate Sparked By Andorra

Yesterday, I posted a blog entry about the inclusion of what seems to be a corporate presentation in the San Francisco Fringe Festival‘s lineup this September. Ian Woodall, a British, Andorra-based mountaineer and motivational speaker with quite a controversial background, is coming to this year’s festival with his presentation The Tao of Everest — a talk he gives predominantly to executives at companies like Microsoft and Ernst & Young.

With its supposedly impartial lottery system for selecting shows, the openness of the fringe format is what makes the festival so much fun. But I wonder if there should somehow be some limitations imposed on the kinds of productions that are eligible to apply? I mean, unless it’s somehow an ironic, twisted or otherwise theatrical take on the corporate presentation genre, surely a straight corporate presentation should be excluded from the lottery for inclusion in a fringe theatre festival?

Obviously, attempting to narrow definitions of what is and what isn’t fringe theatre can become thorny and possibly counter-productive. The debate would necessarily extend beyond a discussion of whether to censor particular formats (e.g. is it OK to include presentations / political speeches / some random person reading aloud from their self-published volume of love poetry etc ??) to considering whether content can also be censored (e.g is it OK to include a play by a neo-Nazi theatre troupe celebrating the Holocaust? Or a gay-bashing dance piece? etc)

On the other hand, when I think of the many potentially more “theatrical” theatre productions that didn’t make it through the lottery for the San Francisco fringe, Woodall’s lucky break seems somewhat perplexing.

But enough from me. Gary Carr, the publicist for the San Francisco Fringe Festival, sent me a couple of interesting responses to yesterday’s blog entry in defense of Andorra’s appearance on the festival roster. Gary kindly agreed to let me post his thoughts:

“The Tao of Everest (whether truly Andorranean or not) will be in the 2009 San Francisco Fringe Festival because it was one of 30 shows (out of more than 150) that was drawn out of a hat (actually a large Tupperware container). True Fringe Festivals are non-juried. Lines cannot be drawn, and pre-selection is not part of the game. It’s all the luck of the draw as to who gets in.However, just because a show gets into a Fringe Festival does not guarantee that it will SUCCEED in that Festival. The audience decides which shows will pack ‘em in and which will be lightly attended. As the 12-day Festival builds, so does the buzz about “must-see” shows. At the San Francisco Fringe, audience members can post their comments on the Fringe web site at www.sffringe.org. Sometimes the posts give high praise; other times, scathing commentary. Great efforts usually win; things that miss the mark are ignored. The only jury is the audience and – hats off to them for their perseverance – the professional critics. The only lines the Fringe can draw are those leading to each show’s box office.”

In a later email, responding to a point I raised in an email to Gary about the extent to which the anything-goes model works if productions drawn out of the hat (or Tupperware) are contentious from a content perspective (as in the neo-Nazi and gay-bashing examples I mentioned above, Gary said:

“My examples would have been a one-person show by a Holocaust-denier, or a Pro-Prop 8 homophobic show, or Dick Cheney explaining why Iraq was a good idea. My initial reaction is that these reprehensible ideas SHOULD be presented to a general audience, not just to one made up of knuckle-dragging true believers, Skinheads, etc. If a bright light is shone on stupidity, my feeling is it will shrivel up and lose most of its power. I wonder if, in the 50+ year history of Fringes, such a diatribe-filled performance as you postulate has turned up. I doubt it, but it would be fun to investigate. There is a legal antidote to things getting out of hand and rising to the level of crying “fire!” in a crowded theatre (bad metaphor?): there are laws against hate speech and treason. So a line has already been drawn. It’s at the level of enforcement where it gets tricky.”

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